For Dr. Ivan Bergstein, cancer is a problem to solve.
Bergstein, a Great Neck South High School graduate, took his biotech company Stemline Therapeutics public in a $38 million IPO last month, and has two drugs in clinical testing that he says could change the way cancer is treated.
“I think it would have a huge impact,” said Bergstein of his company’s experimental treatments. “It would be the first approval of a drug that hits cancer stem cells. That would be very exciting.”
Those cancer stem cells, which are thought to generate tumors and cause cancer relapses after conventional treatment, are at the forefront of a new way of thinking about cancer drugs.
While chemotherapy launches a broad-based assault on cancer - harming healthy cells and shredding the immune systems of patients in the process - attacking cancer stem cells is a more targeted approach that holds serious clinical promise, said Bergstein.
“Those are essentially the seeds of the tumor,” Bergstein said. “Those cells are like time bombs that can regrow the tumor and cause problems.”
Bergstein, who completed his residency and fellowship at New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Medical College of Cornell University, developed among the earliest patents on cancer stem-cell treatments in the late 1990s, he said.
And years later, after founding Stemline, growing the company through private investment and now taking it to the NASDAQ stock exchange, those efforts are bearing fruit.
Two of the company’s drugs are in trials on human patients, and the results have been extremely promising, Bergstein said.
One leukemia drug, named SL401, has led to leukemia shrinkages and increased the lifespan of patients, according to Bergstein.
“We’re seeing very positive results. These are patients who have failed anything else, who no longer have really any conventional options,” he said.
The next step for the business, and its financial future, is contingent on approval by the Food and Drug Administration. Bergstein said he does not have a firm timeline, but anticipated between two and three years of testing with the possibility of an accelerated schedule if results are exceptionally good.
Stemline was founded out of Bergstein’s apartment in 2003, and over the next few years attracted investors and began collaborations with institutions including the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Johns Hopkins.
Bergstein, who was a student-athlete at Great Neck South High School before attending the University of Pennsylvania as a math major, credited Great Neck for its academic environment.
“I think the math experience in Great Neck, in junior high school and high school, was outstanding,” Bergstein said. “The kids in my class were brilliant.”
“[It was] just a great environment to grow up in. There were a lot of smart, intellectually curious kids in my class,” he added.